In the Shadow of the Pyramids: Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre

Andrea Porcheddu*


In a city such as Cairo, marked by a plethora of construction sites and suspended between past and future, Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), now in its thirtieth edition, exemplifies the innovative mindset of the local organizers as well as their willingness to work cooperatively with the international theatre community. Although thirty years of continuity is an important milestone for any cultural event to reach, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre has also offered a wide range of concrete and consolidated theatrical activities during the entire three decades of its existence. Over the years, festival organizers have welcomed many international guests with great warmth and style, and have sponsored the distribution of books translated into Arabic; the festival program has featured a substantial number of events, meetings, workshops and conferences, while successfully staging three performances per day, all with large audiences.  The article provides an overview of the Festival’s thirtieth edition, chaired by Sameh Mahran under the diligent direction of Professors Dina Amin and Ayman El Shiwi.

Keywords: theatre, Cairo, Egypt, research, festival, cooperation

The streets of Cairo are constantly beset by a whirlwind of traffic that is chaotic, yet docile and respectful in its own special way. In the relentless heat of late summer, the parks, the buildings encrusted with satellite dishes and the streets of the bazaar teeming with life are surrounded by cranes, excavators and trucks working incessantly on the construction of entire neighborhoods, new shopping centres or elegant mosques.

While the Nile continues to flow in its eternally commanding course, work never stops on the new Grand Egyptian Museum, which will replace the attractive old Egyptian museum beside the river. The Grand Museum, designed by the firm Heneghan Peng Architects of Dublin, is an immense and highly refined construction. Only a small section is currently open to the pubilc, but it already stands out as a magnificent continuation (or perhaps a mirror) of the archaeological site of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. Crowds of curious tourists also gather in the Coptic neighbourhood, with its churches, Byzantine icons and Synagogue, the latter which has been closed for a year.  Other visitors experience the city more quietly, perhaps by sitting in the café where the Nobel Prize winning novelist Nagib Mahfuz would frequent in search of inspiration. The events in Tahrir Square in 2011 seem like a distant memory and what had once promised to be the centre of a revolution has now again become just another busy traffic hub.

In my experience, whenever I say the word “Italy” in Cairo, I am immediately greeted with a smile, or with the names of three or four footballers who are the public image of Italy. It is also striking that in Arabic, the word opera is pronounced as it is in Italian.  In Cairo’s refined Opera House, a small exhibition pays homage to the divine singer and actress, Oum Kalthoum, and commemorates the staging of Verdi’s Aida in December 1871. Nevertheless, Cairo is determined to look forward, at least according to the official narrative, under the aegis of the Minister of Culture, Neveen Al-Kilany, and the President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose image can be seen throughout the city.

Photo: Courtesy of CIFET

The Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), now in its thirtieth edition, exemplifies the innovative mindset of the local organizers as well as their willingness to work cooperatively with the international theatre community. Although thirty years of continuity is an important milestone for any cultural event to reach, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre has also offered a wide range of concrete and consolidated theatrical activities during the entire three decades of its existence.

Over the years, festival organizers have demonstrated their great warmth and style, welcoming large numbers of international guests from places as varied as Portugal, the UK, Italy, Lithuania, Georgia, Congo, Tunisia, as well as other countries all over the Maghreb and Mashriq. This year’s festival offered an extensive program of events, meetings, workshops and conferences, successfully staging three performances per day, all with large audiences, and also sponsored the distribution of several books translated into Arabic for participants to enjoy. 

From the opening ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of CIFET

Equally impressive is the wide range of spectators of all ages who crowded the venues, eager to get the best seats possible, as the organizers had decided that admission to all events would be free and therefore equally accessible to everyone.

The eleven festival venues vary widely, including the central National Theatre, in the centre of a lively market area, the Puppet Theatre, the Opera House, and several other more or less centrally located venues. Ranging from large to medium-sized halls and small intimate rooms, these spaces are dramaturgically functional for the aims of the festival,    yet they are not all adequately equipped from a technical standpoint. Seven days of shows at a fast pace offer spectators an overview of many different kinds of shows. The average degree of excellence is certainly not very high, and one occasionally feels that the prevailing aesthetic tastes and dramaturgic approaches are rather outdated, and perhaps somewhat unsatisfactory in a context that aspires to be truly international. Nevertheless, certain performances display interesting traces of traditional forms of popular entertainment, such as the fascinating tales told by the wise hakawati (narrator) or qawwal (itinerant storyteller or minstrel), or the karagheuz Mediterranean shadow puppet dating from the 17th century.  In fact, puppetry and shadow theatre still have a very broad appeal, deriving from the original khayāl al-ẓill tradition, originating in the 7th century.

This points toward a great past that seeks to renew itself within the ongoing post-colonial dialectic by activating networks and contacts across social contexts and political situations that are very far removed from each other. In the shows at the CIFET, one senses a widespread desire to reflect on the socio-political dynamics of self-affirmation or oppression, to question certain economic and family models, and to conduct a systematic analysis of power and the freedoms that it allows and denies. All of this is accompanied by a constant yearning for another place that has yet to be discovered or invented.

Some of the participants engage in a cutting invective against the stereotypes and prejudices of the patriarchy, attacking not only contemporary social structures but also the so-called sacred books of various religions, going so far as to hypothesize a God-Woman and thereby challenging the Law of the Father and of Man that underlies the world’s monotheistic religions. This is the case of Neci Padiri, by the Congolese Collectif d’Art-d’Art.  Written, directed and performed by Michael Fabrice Disanka Kabeya, performing on stage with the powerful Christiana Tabaro Nabahya, alongside Talu Taluyobisa Luhelo and Kady Vital Nsimba Okomo, the show is a continuous ritual, in which speech and song alternate with genuine denunciations and condemnations. Religious liturgies, above all the Catholic Eucharist, are called into question with the aim of breaking down the mental and material walls erected to keep men in power.

Actress Christiana Tabaro Nabahya in Neci Padiri, written and directed by Michael Fabrice Disanka Kabey. Photo: Courtesy of CIFET 

Neci Padiri, which I consider the most interesting show I saw in the festival, displays a certain naivety and some excessive lengthiness, yet it has the great virtue of being courageous and militant, which resonates even more deeply in countries where its citizens are still struggling to recognize the independence and equality of women under the law. The actors/singers play the roles of several characters, while the actress, Nabahya, pushes the political content of the text towards the constant affirmation of her own point of view, investigating the condition of the artist as a creator-creatrix. The performers engage in a powerfully corrosive demystification of the religious narratives of the past, revealing how and to what extent the religious and cultural institutions, even more so than capitalism, maintain the unshakable power of the patriarchy.

The thirtieth edition of the CIFET, chaired by Sameh Mahran under the diligent direction of Professors Dina Amin and Ayman El Shiwi, is also for all intents and purposes a competition, the winners of whom were thanked and rewarded at a magnificent glittering final ceremony. The jury, chaired by the director and academic Essam El-Sayed, and consisting of the actor Ahmed Kamal, the acting coach Giles Foreman, the playwright Asiimwe Debora Kawe, the actor and author Jihad Saad, the historian Ezzedine Bounit and the theatre critic Raluca Rădulescu, made their final decisions.

For Heaven’s sake. Icarus!_directed by Ahmed Ezzar El Alfy. The performance production is a collaboration between director El Alfy and Theaterwerkstat Hannover. Photo: Courtesy of CIFET

The award for the best show went to the intense and intimate For Heaven’s Sake, Icarus!, the result of a collaboration between the Egyptian director Ahmed Ezzat El Alfy and the TheaterWerkstat of Hannover. The masterful performances by Khaled Raafat Mohamed Gadou and Nader Mohsen Abdelbaset, with their beautiful faces and great physical intensity, depicted the Greek myth through an insightful metaphorical interpretation, thereby adapting it for a contemporary audience. Daedalus and Icarus, father and son, move around among the spectators while seeking an escape from the labyrinth of existence. Icarus is a big lusty boy who wants to live his adolescence to the full, rushing off to see his friends and watch football matches. Daedalus is a busy adult male who strives to find a new life and to escape from the maze that he himself has created. Meanwhile, he fears he is losing the trust of his son, whose respect and admiration he tries to win. They talk, joke, tell stories and reminisce about the past, sometimes indulging in very entertaining digressions. The show proceeds with a swift pace but delicate sensitivity until the bitter end, which is well known but still very moving.

Among the other awards of the thirtieth edition of the CIFET, that of best director was given to the Georgians Gia Margania and Dimitri Khvtisiashvili for their interpretation of Othello, skillfully adapted to the puppet theatre.

The best actress award was given to the Algerian Fathy Mubarki, for her role in the play Nostalgia, written and directed by Lkhedr Mansouri. While the above-mentioned Congolese Naci Padiri won the award for the best dramaturgy, the Iraqi show File 12 written and starring Mortada Ali with a cast of six actors, won an award for the best scenography and lighting design. I wish to add one of my own personal preferences to this list of winners, by mentioning the play Antigone and the excellent solo performance of the Lithuanian actress Birute Mar, who also directed and wrote the play, and earned warm praise from all the members the jury.

Lithuanean actress Birute Mar in her solo performance Antigone. Photo: Courtesy of CIFET

The CIFET has thus been recognized and confirmed as a valid showcase which brings together different stylistic approaches, genres and theatrical cultures of the East and the West. Narration, puppet theatre, documentary theatre, fiction and dance were intermixed in a search for identity that is perhaps complicated in many respects, but is most certainly destined to develop. Certain practical problems will need to be addressed in the future, such as providing subtitles in English or French for performances in Arabic so that all spectators can fully enjoy the shows. Cairo could then truly become a place for encounters, discussion and debate, not only within the Arabic speaking world but also in a broader, Mediterranean or even global context, with the aim of elucidating specific territorial, linguistic and cultural characteristics that fortunately have not been stymied by widespread colonial tastes and approaches

From the closing ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of CIFET

What I truly appreciated was the evident desire to create and experience one’s own kind of theatre, with specific qualities and features that can overcome or exclude certain European influences that still persist in post-colonialist attitudes. In this case the so-called gaze of Ulysses, i.e., that of the Westerner who is perpetually attracted by the mystery of the exotic, collides with a living situation and an alternative world view.

From the closing ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of CITEF

In the building site of Cairo, where new pathways and new possibilities are being created, the theatre could be a space for genuine social (re)construction, in which civilization and culture can be developed through organized experiences of listening and discussion. This possibility seemed even more relevant when I left Egypt and heard the news of the devastating tragedies in Morocco and Libya. Disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes make us acutely aware that, today more than ever, human solidarity is an essential condition for creating a better future. 

*Andrea Porcheddu (born in 1967) lives in Rome. He has  published various books on theatre theory and history, He is currently a Dramaturg at the National Theatre of Genova. He also teaches  a course on the Methodology of Theatrical Criticism at Accademia “Silvio d’Amico” in Rome. In the period between 2016-2022 Andrea was a  professor at Rome University “La Sapienza.”  Since 2008 he directs the workshop of Theatre Criticism at Venice La Biennale.

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